Why Students Desperately Need ‘Soft Skills’

Students go to school to learn, and so we naturally want to test them to make sure that they are in fact learning. Though some people disapprove of testing, I’ve argued before that, when done right, it is an important and necessary part of ensuring that we provide quality education.

But aside from the skills that are easily – or relatively easily – tested, like reading, writing and math, we also want students to learn what are known as “non-cognitive skills.”

What are non-cognitive skills?

These skills go by many names, but they’re perfectly familiar to us. They also referred to as soft skills, personality-based skills or socio-emotional skills.

Think about the ability to plan out a week’s worth of work, interact productively with peers, manage competing demands and stressors, or to have high self-esteem – these are the types of skills I mean.

Clearly, there’s not going to be a defined list anywhere, and we’re not going to have complete agreement even about which skills we should seek to encourage in students. There’s a continuing debate, for instance, on how important encouraging “self-esteem” is in education.

And even if we could agree on a set of soft skills we wanted students to learn, it would still be difficult to both figure out how to teach these skills and figure out how to measure them.

Nevertheless, we can’t shy away from acknowledging that these skills are an essential part of what students can and should learn from school. And it’s important to note that, despite a lack of conceptual clarity, it’s clear students can and do develop these types of skills all the time, even if when it’s not an explicit aim.

New research

But the picture isn’t all rosy. A new working paper released from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students with lower family incomes scored lower on an assessment of their soft skills, as reported by teacher assessments.

The authors point out that many soft skills are at least as important as IQ in determining some future life outcomes, like longevity and professional success. Conscientiousness, for example, is more closely linked with an individual’s life expectancy than IQ is.

We shouldn’t be quick to conclude from this study that students from low income families will have lower levels of all non-cognitive skills. For example, it could be that students from low income families have low self-esteem but get along better with other children, or vice versa. This single study is certainly not expansive enough to pick out these sorts of nuances.

But this paper paves the way for further research along these lines of investigation. And as the authors point out, despite the importance of soft skills, there’s surprisingly a lack of literature on the effects of economic disparities on the development of these skills.

A word of caution

Though we should be happy when more people pay attention to these considerations, there’s a danger that we’ll assume we can just shoe-horn soft skills into the old syllabus, as it were.

But the point about soft skills is that they function very differently than other types of skills, and we can’t assume that the usual educational methods should just be expanded. For example, while some schools have begun trying to measure soft skills in a systematic way, Martin West points out that we don’t know what the effects could be of placing these measures within a high-stakes accountability system.

We should think of this as a challenge to our creativity: How do we encourage the growth of vital soft skills, without turning them into another box that has to be checked?

Photo Credit: Mikepena (edited)

71 comments

Chrissie R
Chrissie R11 months ago

Thank you for posting.

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara11 months ago

Irish kids who have had a year or two in America tell me that American junior schools are very poor in terms of what is taught and to what age. They wanted to skip a year or two or come back to Ireland so they would not be at a disadvantage. They were learning nothing.

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Sue H
Sue H11 months ago

With cuts in the education budgets I doubt that soft skills will be part of the program. Most unfortunate.

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Danuta Watola
Danuta W11 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M11 months ago

Noted.

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